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Originally published Tuesday, June 24, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Seattle Schools budget of $556 million would use savings to fund raises, new hires

Costs are going up, and the number of students is going down, but Seattle Public Schools plans to increase its staff by 102 jobs next school...

Seattle Times education reporter

Public hearing on budget

SEATTLE PUBLIC SCHOOLS plans to hold a public hearing at 6 p.m. Wednesday on its proposed budget for the 2008-09 school year. The meeting is at the John Stanford Center auditorium, 2445 Third Ave. S.

Information

To see the budget presentation to the Seattle School Board: www.seattleschools.org/area/board/061808agenda/operatingbudgetpresentation.pdf

Costs are going up, and the number of students is going down, but Seattle Public Schools plans to increase its staff by 102 jobs next school year and use $12.6 million of its savings to do so.

It's a plan that Steve Sundquist, chairman of the School Board's finance committee, calls unsustainable but responsible.

At a School Board meeting last week, Sundquist urged his colleagues to support the superintendent's proposed budget for the 2008-09 school year, saying it keeps the district moving forward and, despite spending a big chunk of savings, maintains unrestricted reserves at 3.8 percent of the general fund (not counting grants), well within the board policy of 2 to 4 percent.

"This make sense in the short term," Sundquist said.

A public hearing on the budget, which in all totals $556 million, is scheduled Wednesday. The board plans to vote on it at its meeting on July 9.

Board members and district administrators agree that the proposal simply delays tough decisions that probably lie ahead.

"I hope we all realize that we're just buying ourselves time," board member Michael DeBell told his colleagues. DeBell says he'll probably support the budget but still has "grave doubts" about it.

Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson assured the board that district administrators "understand where we are."

"As we move forward," she said, "the staff probably struggles as much as you do."

The idea is that the district will use this year to figure out the best way to bring revenues in line with expenses, especially in light of the district's new strategic plan. District revenues are going up, even with an expected drop in enrollment of about 580 students, but costs are going up faster.

Overspending got the district into trouble in 2001, when it failed to keep careful track of its money and had to exhaust its reserves to stay in the black and make deep cuts for several subsequent years to stay there.

This time, the board is planning to spend savings on purpose. It did the same in July 2006, when the board approved spending $12 million in reserves in part to tide the district over until it could gain savings it expected from closing seven schools.

The biggest expense increases for the 2008-09 school year come from adding jobs and providing raises to teachers and other certificated staff such as librarians and nurses.

This coming school year is the last year of a five-year contract for certificated staff members that was designed to bring their pay into the top five of 12 surrounding school districts, said Linda Sebring, the district's budget manager.

It's not yet clear exactly how much it will take to reach that goal this school year, she said, but the district has estimated it will need to give teachers about a 3 percent raise. That's on top of a cost-of-living raise teachers also receive.

The teachers contract also requires the district add some of the 102 new jobs that the budget proposes. (That's a net number, after counting the elimination of some administrative jobs.)

About 50 positions, for example, are needed to fulfill contract requirements for the number of teaching assistants for special-education and bilingual students.

The district, however, also plans to add 41 jobs to decrease class sizes in elementary schools and to provide a full six periods in high school.

The district also wants to add 18 teachers to the three schools in its Southeast Initiative — Aki Kurose Middle School, Cleveland High and Rainier Beach High.

Some hope that the district will get financial help from Olympia next year. A state committee is now weighing whether changes need to be made in how the state funds schools.

Many school districts, including Seattle, contend that the state doesn't fully fund a basic education for all students, which is required by Washington's constitution.

But increased funding from the state is far from certain.

If nothing changes soon, however, Sundquist said the district could start planning for the 2009-10 budget with about a $20 million hole to fill.

At last week's board meeting, however, Board President Cheryl Chow stressed that the district can't cut corners on academics.

"It's a sound budget," she said. "It shows kids and the parents that we are going to address academic achievement."

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or lshaw@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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